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Stroke Smart Magazine

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January/February 2008

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Finding Beauty in Imperfection

By Rowena Alegra

Abbas Khajeaian is a mosaic artist. He breaks things - mostly pottery, tile and glass - then unites the pieces into something far more beautiful than the original.


Khajeaian might also call himself a mosaic. He was "broken" by stroke in 1997 but has reassembled the pieces into something lovely.


"This is the best time of my life," he says.


Khajeaian, who now lives in Denver, Colo., was born in Iran 66 years ago and came to the United States in 1963. He holds a Ph.D. in education and was a professor when a hemorrhagic stroke caught him by surprise. Khajeaian "lost" his right side. For a time during his recovery he also lost his ability to speak the English language, which was very difficult for his wife, Karen Dinan, who doesn't speak Farsi.


She was with him when he collapsed, and he credits her with saving his life.


"I owe everything to my wife - except my loud mouth," he jokes.


Turning more serious, he says, "She suffered more than I did. The caregivers go through such dramatic changes. And it's forced on them. It's my stroke and my body - it happened to me - but she had to accept so many changes."


Like many other stroke survivors, the changes brought on by Khajeaian's stroke weren't just physical, although he did have to learn to walk and talk again. Meanwhile, he couldn't work. And he needed assistance, which meant his wife couldn't work.


"Those first two years were very, very difficult financially," Khajeaian says. "Help from the government comes six months later. But when you need help is when everything happens and everything shifts."


The Khajeaians wound up moving into a new house, with a yard that Khajeaian couldn't mow. "I didn't like the idea of that falling on my wife's shoulders," he says. "So I got rid of the grass in the backyard."


Khajeaian began with a patio - a mosaic patio.


Although he'd never done any art before, Khajeaian began designing and crafting the pieces. It took him all fall and winter to craft the blocks by hand - by one hand, his left. Before the stroke he was right-handed.


"I never thought of any short cuts," he says. "I was so concerned with the thought that I had to do it."


The patio was Khajeaian's fi rst big project since his stroke two years earlier. And although it was a huge step forward for him, he wasn't entirely happy with it. It wasn't smooth and perfect like the intricate mosaic work he had known growing up.


A trip to Barcelona, where Khajeaian was awe struck by the power of the uneven yet amazing work of Antoni Gaudi, changed his perception - and his life. "I was fl abbergasted," Khajeaian says.


He was also inspired. He came home and began working on other mosaic projects out of his garage, thinking it would be a hobby. He took a few pieces to the Park Hill Neighborhood art show. "I couldn't believe people wanted to buy my work," he says.


But Khajeaian's garage was not an ideal workspace. The extreme heat and cold aggravated his condition.


Khajeaian shuffl es his right foot when he walks. His right hand opens only partially to shake. On the right side of his body, he says, the throbbing pain from his head to his toes is constant and has been since his stroke.


Khajeaian took painkillers for a while but then realized they were causing him to lose a lot mentally. About three years ago he gave them up.


In dealing with the pain, he says, "it becomes a part of you, part of your life and your body's existence. In the elevator of life, my pain is the Muzak."


Although his family tells him that the only difference between him and them is that he gets a better parking space, Khajeaian knows he has limits. Mosaic is heavy work. Khajeaian recognized he needed help, which he says he is not shy about requesting. "I'm grateful to people for their assistance," he says. "In other ways, I try to help them."


Khajeaian asked his daughter, who was a jewelry artist and cosmetics company manager, to go into business with him. Roya Khajeaian agreed.


They found a studio in the arts district on Denver's Santa Fe Drive and opened Kashi Kari Gallery, where father and daughter create everything from statues to tabletops.


"My dad and I didn't have a lot of time together as I was growing up," Roya says. "But now our relationship goes beyond father and daughter. My dad's always my dad, and now he's my friend, too."


Kashi Kari has moved to a new home, in a space only a couple of blocks from the original. The gallery is part of a community of artists that Khajeaian considers himself blessed to be a part of, an extension of his family.


He admits he still sometimes gets depressed. "We all do," he says. "If I don't come to the gallery for a couple of days, I get tired and depressed. But as soon as I come, everything is fine."


Khajeaian, who studies Sufism and the art of poetry, says, "The practice of focusing on today and being busy is the answer. I realize that no matter what situation we are in, we're really lucky to be alive." In the decade since his stroke, Khajeaian has also learned a life-altering lesson: "Anything imperfect or unfi nished is still beautiful," he says.


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